Celebrating New Stage's New Season


Tucked away in the heart of the Belhaven Neighborhood, New Stage Theatre begins its 53rd Season September 11th with Morningside, a new comedy written and directed by Mississippi native Topher Payne. Building upon previous seasons, this year’s productions are grouped together under the theme “The Power of Place,” and have an exceptionally high number of plays by Mississippians or about Mississippi.

“There are so many stories about Mississippi in the movies or there are plays written about Mississippi but are not from Mississippi,” said Francine Reynolds, Artistic Director of New Stage Theatre. “There’s nothing wrong with that but I kept thinking ‘why are we not doing that ourselves?’”

For years New Stage has held the Eudora Welty New Play Festival, but began to see an opportunity to include newer works throughout its regular season. “We started this Mississippi Plays series and read two of Topher [Payne]’s plays because we really wanted Topher’s plays to come back,” Reynolds said.

For the Kosciusko native, coming back to New Stage truly is coming home. 

“It’s immensely gratifying and beautifully familiar,” he said. “The most gratifying thing to me is to hand off a story to actors.”

In 1997, Payne left the prestigious Idyllwild Arts Academy in California to pursue his professional career. While only 17 years old, he became part of the New Stage Theatre professional intern company. After one year as an acting intern and a second as a technical intern, he moved to Atlanta and took a job in advertising while pursuing writing professionally. 

Payne’s writing career blossomed and soon became a full-time job. He now has 22 published and produced plays and three television movies. 

“I have this really wacky day job where I write those Christmas movies your mom loves!” Payne said. 

To compliment his steady career writing Lifetime movies, Payne’s plays have been produced in major cities throughout the county, including at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and Off-Broadway by Primary Stages in New York City.

“I was raised in the Methodist Church,” Payne explained. “The way that I understood the world to work was based in a parable. All of my family history from a whole lot of loquacious southerners is also based in storytelling. If there’s anything unique to Mississippi storytellers, it is the delivery system of humor to land something matters.”

“That is definitely what this play does,” said Ali Dinkins, a Jackson actress playing Grace in Morningside.

“If you want people to pay attention, make them laugh,” Payne said. “They lean in and now that they have dropped their defenses, now I can tell you something that matters.”

“Carolyn [Choe] one of the actors calls it the Spinach in the casserole,” Dinkins said. “Just make a casserole everyone wants to eat and no one has to know it’s spinach!”

New Stage is only the second theatre to produce his latest play, Morningside, and is enabling him to refine the script through the rehearsal process. “It is risky to focus on new works,” Reynolds said. “We want to be an incubator for these works.” 

Unlike other forms of writing, plays are designed to be read aloud, in front of an audience. Early productions such as the one at New Stage are an integral part of refining and polishing a script. As a result of this production, the published version of Morningside will be the New Stage version. 

“Second productions are so crucial to the life of a work, it really makes or breaks it,” Payne explained. “There are lessons that you learn from a world premiere that you really don’t get to employ until the second production and the rewrites that come from that.”

Morningside follows the story of nine Atlanta women and their secrets (and champagne) during one unforgettable baby shower. The story strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Southern woman, balancing modern opportunity with a desire to hold onto tradition. 

“My cheeks hurt so bad in rehearsal from laughing so hard,” said Dinkins. For her, Morningside is a special project because she and Payne were acting interns together at New Stage.

The intern company at New Stage employs and houses four early career theatre artists full time who then perform, teach, and help with both technical and administrative roles throughout the theatre. New Stage is Mississippi’s only year-round professional theatre company and has used the intern company as a means to build community engagement with theatre.

“We’re out there touring shows throughout the state to 22,000 students,” Reynolds said. In many of the places that we go, some of those kids would never see a show unless we go there.”

The value of a professional theatre is not just that performers are paid, but that it enables programs like the school engagement tours and year-round operations for the theatre that allows for increased audience engagement. 

“It’s important that we’re able to bring new things to our audiences, not just new works, but things that are new in the American theatre,” Reynolds said. “This year we’re doing Sweat that won the Pulitzer in 2017. Not many people have gone to NY to see sweat.”

“Every play was new once,” Payne added.

“The lifeblood of our theatre are playwrights,” Reynolds said. “I playwrights to be able to come and create. We need to create a place for them.”

“Professional matters in the arts because when we’re trying to recruit doctors, especially at our hospitals, it is really hard to recruit a family without being able to say you have a professional arts organization in all four arts divisions,” Dinkins added. “New Stage provides the only opportunity for us to say that. Mississippi has a wonderful arts legacy. That message cannot be communicated to people we are recruiting as business leaders and physicians unless we can prove that our artists are making a living. New Stage is the only place that can prove that in the area of theatre.” 

In addition to the recruitment aspects, New Stage’s professional status gives it an organizational structure that adds benefits to the educational opportunities in the state.

“There are professional standards for a theatre workplace and New Stage meeting those standards train early career artists on what they have a right to expect,” Payne explains.

“Having worked in education and watched education professionals try to run theatre programs, the parents are delighted by the way a former New Stage intern runs a theatre program,” said Dinkins. “Because interns have been trained to run theatre in a way that is predictable and reliable. So I feel like all the people that are our educational programs are training both through summer camp and through our internship programs are changing the scenery of our educational systems.” In addition to her work in a professional theatre, Dinkins spent some time teaching theatre in Jackson Public Schools. 

This year’s crop of interns includes four new actors brought in from all over the country. For Virginia native Sarah Coleman, New Stage was her first choice when she auditioned for internships. “I liked the shows that they were doing and Sharon was the most compassionate and genuine person I met,” she said.

She joins Illinois native Hayden Schubert, Los Angeles native Jordan Williams and Florida native Cherry Rendel as part of the acting team that will take Pinocchio and If Not Us, Then Who? Freedom Rides to Freedom Summer into schools across the state.

All cite the hospitality as one of the primary things they love about the south. 

Following in the footsteps of professionals like Dinkins and Payne, the four have strong desires about what they want to do after their internships. Williams wants to be a theatre professor, while Rendel and Coleman cite the skills they are developing teaching youth classes and Schubert directing opportunities. 

“The great thing about a professional theatre is that we get to bring in [performers] that the community here hasn’t seen yet, the ability to introduce fresh faces,” Schubert says. 

“For me, it’s about accountability,” Williams said. “Even if you don’t want to come in, you have to because people are counting on you.” 

“For me, professional theatre means a higher standard,” Rendel said. “It’s a sense of responsibility.”

After Morningside New Stage continues the season with The Diary of Anne Frank, Hell In High Water which tells the story of the 1927 Greenville Flood, 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner Sweat and Bright Star. Other shows, including A Christmas Carol and a new musical Sweet Potato Queens by Jill Conner Browne dot the calendar along with other smaller productions and the soon-to-be-announced “UnFramed” series at New Stage’s Warehouse Theatre.